The letter brought news of her death.
It had arrived via messenger from the convent, after Hogmanay, mere weeks before the sailing season ended and no more ships came between January and March. Dougal had called him and his godfather Murtagh into his study and delivered the news—simple and brutal. Like Claire’s end. Jamie had been unwilling to believe it, but Dougal had shown him the ring—the ring he had placed so lovingly on her finger, once in promise, then in marriage. His uncle had pressed the silver circlet into his hand. Numbly, he clutched it, and refused to let go.
Murtagh had held him up as he staggered back to his chamber. Murtagh had tried to stop him as he punched the stone walls repeatedly, furious tears coursing down his face. His godfather had held him while he wept like a child. Mrs. Fitzgibbons had bandaged his torn skin, sympathy in her eyes. He did not want their pity. He wanted Claire.
Jamie held his battered left hand gingerly. It was likely he had broken something inside; the fingers refused to stretch out properly, twanging with constant pain. Claire would have known how to fix it. Claire… he curled up in the bed, too tired to rise now. He recalled every small detail about his late wife. Jamie reveled in her beauty; even in her usual homespun, knee-deep in mud from the convent’s garden, or stained and fierce with the blood of her calling, the curve of her bones spoke to his own marrow, and those amber whisky eyes had made him drunk with a glance. How the mad collieshangie of her hair had made him laugh…
How he raged and wept and cursed his very existence. Then the dreams came, with a vengeance. If this was his punishment for leaving her, for letting her die, then he would take it, and be glad. Glad that he could at least see her again, if only in his imagination.
Jamie became a ghost, wandering the halls of Castle Leoch. He interacted with no one, save the horses. The horses did not know, did not care that he had left his wife alone, defenseless, and had done nothing more to prevent his uncle Jared to put him on a ship like worthless cargo, bent on following Dougal’s orders.
He barely remembered the trip, even though he did keep track of the days. One day away from her, two days away from her… His head had ached something fierce; there was a sizeable bump on it after Jared’s thugs had clubbed him. It had felt like the world was rocking sideways constantly, and nausea overtook him. All that had sustained him was the thought of her. The cloud of her hair in his nose, the vivid green scent of her, her alabaster skin under his hands that single night they had shared. The endless nausea and seasickness that made him pray for a swift end. He was guarded at all times by Rupert MacKenzie and Angus Mohr. Once he disembarked in Scotland, the overland trip to Castle Leoch seemed fraught with opportunities to escape, but his kinsmen were always there, shadowing him, thwarting every attempt, even now. Jamie had been punched and beaten, kicked, and finally restrained, until the devastating news took the fight out of him. Now there was no one to go back to.
Now they wished him to remarry.
To cement his status as chieftain of clan MacKenzie, Dougal had arranged a marriage with one of his tacksmen’s daughters – Laoghaire. When Jamie had first arrived, his uncle had made the announcement at dinnertime in the great hall. It hadn’t mattered that Jamie had immediately protested, citing his marriage to Claire made it impossible for him to marry another. He had been dragged from the hall to his uncle’s study, to be berated and bellowed at.
“’Tis done, uncle. We were handfast weeks ago.” Jamie’s face had flushed in triumph. “I gave her my mam’s pearls.”
“Aye. Jared said as much. It was yer right to give out Ellen’s necklace to yer wife. But such marriages are only valid for a year and a day, lad. I can wait.”
In the end, waiting hadn’t been necessary. Claire was dead.
Jamie did not wish to hurt the lass Laoghaire’s feelings. She was young yet, seventeen, and eager to be married. She followed after him some days, like a puppy, and Jamie was civil and courteous to her, like he would be to any woman. But he did not wish to encourage her, or make her think she had a chance at winning his heart. He had given that up long since to a sassenach.
February came. Tired of his moping, Dougal called him once more to his study to discuss details for a spring wedding. He would be given the small stipend that was owed to him upon his marriage, as per MacKenzie family tradition. A symbolic amount, really, Dougal clarified, but enough to help them at the start. Jamie fiddled with Claire’s ring. He carried it with him always, in his waistcoat pocket, the feel of the metal and the thistle pattern grounding him in the grim reality that was his life now.
“Ye could do worse, lad. Take Laoghaire and be done with it. Stay here at Leoch, be my second in command. Yer parents would have been pleased with the match as weel.”
Jamie bristled at the mention of his parents. His father, Brian, had never been accepted by the MacKenzies; illegitimate, impoverished, he had not been good enough for Ellen. After losing his wife, much of his spirit had gone out of him, and he had passed away a few years after that. An apoplexy, the tenants said. A broken heart, thought Jamie and Jenny.
“Uncle, I have no desire to be married again, so soon after… after I am widowed.” Jamie swallowed hard. “Need I remind ye, a wedding’s no wedding but that I say yes.”
“Ye will,” replied Dougal emphatically.
That evening Jamie crept into the great hall for supper. He caught Laoghaire craning her neck, seeking him out. He preferred to bide at a corner trestle table, out of sight. Perhaps he should just take bread and cheese and go to his chamber. But before he could leave discreetly, Dougal stood with wine cup in hand to make an announcement.
“We are most pleased to welcome a traveling healer, who will set up in Davie Beaton’s former quarters for the season, should anyone have need. I offer ye Castle Leoch’s hospitality freely, Mistress Julia Beauchamp.”
Jamie nearly dropped his own wine at his wife’s mother’s name. It couldn’t be—he was afraid to hope, even the tiniest fraction. His heart raced in overtime. He pushed through the crowd frantically as they milled around, waiting for dinner. He spied the top of a curly head walking in a stately manner towards Dougal. Jamie reached the front as the woman faced Dougal directly, her back to him. Jamie’s chest seemed full to bursting with joy and relief, expanding infinitely, as he recognized the shade of brown in her hair, the graceful curve of her neck, her slender hands gripping her skirts as she curtsied.
It was Claire.